“Happy birthday to me!” I exclaimed after my first bite of the Scharffen Berger Chocolate Torte ($7) at 4th St Bistro. It was no exaggeration. It really was my birthday and, thanks to a great meal, I was happy. I usually find birthdays miserable and disappointing, and, hours earlier, I had arrived at the restaurant sullen and irritable, like any self-centered jerk who expects to be treated like a king whenever it’s his birthday.
But though I had spent all day setting myself up for various disappointments, my dinner actually exceeded my expectations.
The place is a little pretentious, but comfortable and stylish enough to be romantic. The loudmouth yuppies at the next table did their best to cramp our style, but otherwise, the atmosphere was perfect: nice lighting, great views. My family and I were happy to linger over a long meal.
The service is polite but formal to the point of being distracting. The best service is the kind you hardly notice. I find overly mannered service to be disruptive, but this stuffy etiquette might appeal to some patrons—after all, this is not somewhere to go when you don’t feel like spending money.
My salad was one of the best in recent memory, a perfect mix of diverse tastes and textures: romaine, apples, grapes, celery, walnuts and creamy blue cheese dressing ($8.50). My mom; my sister, Brenna; and my girlfriend, Danielle, all had the soup du jour, an excellent cream of asparagus ($4).
My entree was a rosemary braised lamb shank with olive gremolata on soft polenta and spinach ($26). The lamb was rich, dark and succulent, nicely complemented by the polenta and spinach and, like all our food, prettily presented.
My brother, Cameron, had the roast breast of Sonoma County “Liberty” duck with braised red chard, pecan-maple yams and chutney ($24). Again, a complex harmony of flavors, though my brother made a complaint of some slight “sliminess.”
Mom had the Alaskan halibut, with mushroom, asparagus and pancetta ragout with limone olio nuovo ($26). When asked to comment on the food afterward, she replied, “Oh, it was wonderful, and Brenna and I both thought the bathroom smelled wonderful.” A detail I imagine few readers were fretting over, but all are glad to hear.
Danielle is trying to maintain a vegan diet. I thought it was bad enough when she was just an extremely picky vegetarian, but now I can’t take her anywhere. She had a cup of the soup du jour and the Romaine salad without the dressing. A fine meal, to be sure, but the poor lass doesn’t know what she’s missing.
Brenna had the sizzling Moroccan rock shrimp with lemon butter, garlic and chilies ($9.50). The shrimp, perfectly tender, were not overwhelmed by any of the other flavors—even the dangerous garlic.
The five of us split two desserts: a tasty lemon pudding souffle ($7) and the aforementioned torte, which engaged my taste buds in a sordid, passionate tryst that left saliva dribbling euphemistically. We had a bottle of Domaine Chandon pinot meunier ($44). After the meal and only one glass of the wine, Brenna—not the most level-headed girl to begin with—found herself, because of the intoxicating power of the food and drink and the relative isolation of the bistro, driving on the wrong side of the road. The pleasures to be had at the 4th St Bistro may indeed impair judgment.